Katja Juhola, Maria Huhmarniemi & Kaisa Raatikainen

Artistic Research on Dialogical Aesthetics – Ethics of Gathering

International Socially Engaged Art Symposium addressing research ecologies

Freshwater pearl mussels: Making public art

Socially engaged art as a research inquiry for political ecology: Ethical aspects

In the 21st century, artistic and art-based research has become widely established and accepted in academia (see, e.g. Barone & Eisner 2012; Leavy 2015, 2019; McNiff 1998; Sullivan, 2005). Further, collaborations between artists and scientists have simultaneously developed into an active field (da Costa 2008; Scott 2006). Art-based research is one approach to environmental research in which art is implemented as part of the research strategy and methodology. In this article, we discuss socially engaged art and transdisciplinary science collaborations as artistic research and analyse elements of ethics in the art symposium.


Artists have many reasons for collaborating with scientists in the disciplines of natural sciences and environmental studies. As artist-researcher Maria Huhmarniemi (2011) has described, some artists aim to communicate environmental research to the public in order to increase interest in environmental issues, while others work with scientific methods simply for the sake of art. Others have raised discussions about ethical concerns in regard to research methods, with some artists also producing research data, making new interpretations, creating innovations and even solving environmental problems at a local level (Huhmarniemi 2011). The pedagogical turn in contemporary art – whereby dialogical art, i.e. where the artist involves her or his partner in the meaningful process without pre-defining the end result (see Kantonen 2010), has been established and educational learning strategies have been implemented in informal and outdoor sites – has also influenced art and science collaborations (see da Costa 2008). This transdisciplinary field of art, research and activism collaborations has tremendous educational potential. In the field of education, this transdisciplinary collaboration is often referred to as STEAM (see Harris & Bruin 2018), i.e. learning that uses science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics for dialogical and collaborative learning.


Established in 2017 in Raseborg, Finland, the International Socially Engaged Art Symposium (ISEAS) is held annually. The symposium is curated and coordinated by artist-researcher Katja Juhola, who invites international and national artists to work collaboratively with various local communities (Juhola 2018, forthcoming). Juhola has been conducting a cyclic development research on the symposium as a socially and environmentally engaged art event. Thus, this article is one part of an ongoing art-based action research process. Cycles of planning, acting, reflecting, evaluating and re-planning are repeated in order to deepen the understanding of the studied phenomenon (see, e.g. Jokela 2019; Jokela & Huhmarniemi 2018). An underlying aim is to develop the art world to have a greater impact on global society and community or environmental issues through art. The symposium is influenced by dialogical aesthetics and theories of conversation pieces (Kantonen 2010; Kester 2004) and community-based art education (Helguera 2011; Hiltunen 2009; lleris 2015, 2017; Jokela 2013, 2016; Thompson 2015). Juhola (2018) has declared that the ISEAS gathering itself is her artwork, which follows dialogical aesthetics; in addition, dialogical art occurs in collaborations among invited artists and the local community.


In 2019, Juhola invited a group of artists and environmental researchers and experts to collaborate during ISEAS. The study topic was the relationship between humans and nature, which followed a recent discussion on post-humanism and new materialism (see Connolly 2013; Demos 2016; Youatt 2007). The participants formed three teams to focus on three locally relevant sub-themes: meadows and wood-pastures, the circular economy and freshwater pearl mussels (described in this article). Each team engaged with local communities, including kindergartens, schools, the Martha Society, which promotes well-being and quality of life in the home and carries out cultural and civic education in Finland, and a local farm. Docent Mari Krappala supported by mentoring each group's work with its theme. A documentary team of two videographers and one photographer followed the teams to provide research data and materials for presentation in a book, exhibitions and social media. The video presented here illustrates the work done by all three teams (Video 1).

The authors of this article initiated their collaboration in the spring of 2019 while planning for ISEAS. All authors took part in ISEAS interventions. Huhmarniemi and Raatikainen worked together in the meadows and wood-pastures team. Juhola worked in the freshwater pearl mussel team. Juhola (2018) has been conducting long-term art-based action research on developing dialogical art methods in the context of ISEAS. Huhmarniemi’s (2011, 2016, 2019) research on collaborations has included artist participation in environmental discussions. Raatikainen (2018) has performed interdisciplinary research on the conservation of agricultural biodiversity and has also been training and performing as a dancer, which has resulted in increasing the mutual understanding of knowledge and art-based research methods between the authors.

The aim of ISEAS 2019, titled in Nature, was to create an art process and production in situ in collaboration with other symposium participants and community members. Each participant brought their own expertise, knowledge and know-how, albeit with no previous artworks: at ISEAS, artworks are always the result of event-specific collaborations and are preceded by common discussions and design (Juhola 2018) (photo 1.). According to Kester’s (2004) dialogical aesthetics, art takes place within a community dialogue. Social art cannot exist without the ‘I’ and the ‘you’; dialogical art is created in human relationships and encounters (Bourriaud 2002). The phenomenon being studied can be presented in the form of an exhibition, although it has been created in the form of a dialogue within the community during an art intervention (Kester 2004).


The three goals set by Juhola for ISEAS 2019 were 1) to bring environmental research into the communities’ worldview, 2) to cope with local natural conditions and 3) to ask people how to live in an equal relationship with non-human nature, including animals, plants and non-living objects. As the overarching topic of the teams’ work was the human–nature relationship, ISEAS addressed the concept of research ecologies from multiple perspectives. On one hand, all groups applied scientific, ecological and environmental knowledge and, thus, discussed their artistic work using ecological terms. On the other hand, most of the practices of the symposium were reasoned through the lens of ecological sustainability and environmentalism.


While issues of political ecology were explored in the artistic research in the symposium (Raatikainen, Juhola & Huhmarniemi, forthcoming), the ethics of the gathering are considered in this article. The need for ethical principles governing artist gatherings became topical in the 2010s. For example, the #metoo movement showed that the art and cultural fields engaged in practices considered unethical in the 2020s. We are aware that art symposiums can potentially support gender equality and marginalised artists, but they can also fail entirely. In addition, we ponder the aspects of ethics in relation to the participants. For example, our intention was to invite locals in the dialogue, empower and inform them and avoid treating them as mere sources of inspiration and information. Research and guidelines surrounding ethics in artistic research and community action research were considered relevant for developing ethical principles for the socially engaged art symposium. While there are similar art gatherings around the world, there is a dearth of research literature on the ethics or impact of art symposiums. This study is largely dependent on Juhola’s previous experiences in several international art symposiums around the world; the previous knowledge is based on practical knowhow rather than evidence-based research.


In this article, we analyse the artistic research practices and ethics of the gathering. To explain the research ecology of ISEAS 2019, we present the work process of one team, which focused on endangered freshwater pearl mussels. We asked questions about the kinds of elements employed to support the dialogue, how we gained knowledge from the team and community members and what kinds of ethical issues emerged during the cross-disciplinary symposium and in interaction with the local communities. The analysis is based on the research data collected during the symposium. Some of the dialogues, such as team mentoring sessions, group discussion and debates on ethics and final evaluation were documented in research diaries, shared memos and voice recorder; documentation varied. The symposium participants and some of the community members, including school children, provided written reflections and/or evaluation of their experiences. The documentary team also contributed a rich selection of documentary photographs and three edited videos to the research data: one video of each intervention. The elements of ethics in the symposium are discussed under the following themes: 1) an ethical standard in relation to the aims of the symposium and producing the event according ethical principles of community art, 2) artists’ and experts’ respect for each other as well as for non-human nature, 3) the aim for a relatively low environmental footprint and a meaningful handprint and 4) awareness of power relations in art symposiums. In addition, we pondered why the gathering was called a symposium.

ISEAS 2019 drew on contemporary place-bound and socially engaged artistic practices to create situations of dynamic sharing, cooperation and social practice (Bishop 2006; Bourriaud 2002; Doherty 2004; Helguera 2002; Irish 2010; Kester 2004; Thompson 2015). It is typical for socially engaged art as research inquiry to provoke discussion, tackle issues that are not usually verbally discussed and educate (Lacy 1995; Smartt Gullion & Schäfer 2018). Some long-term socially engaged art and science collaborations are well known for their educational impact. For example, the bioartist Brandon Ballengée has been conducting research on frogs in so-called eco-actions with community members. He believes that transdisciplinary art practices and participatory biology programmes may successfully increase the public’s understanding of ecological phenomena (Ballengée 2015). Media artist and art scholar Andrea Polli has studied weather conditions and public engagement with weather and climate science (Polli 2011). This kind of artistic work has been around for decades. For example, in 1998, artists Rikrit Tiranvanija and Kamin Lertchaiprasert purchased a rice field in northern Thailand to create a testing ground for meditation and ideas, such as ecologically conscious systems that do not rely on gas or electricity. Their artistic production called for self-sufficiency and sustainable practices (Thompson 2012). The existing literature offers evidence of the positive impact of art on involving participants and audiences in environmental discussions and sustainable ways of living.


Based on the previous research and principles of dialogical art (Bishop 2006; Doherty 2004; Kester 2004; Thompson 2012), our aim was to develop the concept of ISEAS to focus on recent philosophical paradigm shifts, such as new-materialism and post-humanism (Bennett & Patrick 2010; Demos 2016; Plumwood 2002; Wolfe 2009). Moreover, discussions about artistic research underscored a focus on ‘experimentality’, ‘materiality’ and ‘post-philosophy’ (see Seppä, Kaila & Slager 2017). In this study, we agreed that the aims of artistic research are to create case studies through art and dialogue and then discuss, evaluate, publish and further develop them in research. The strength of artistic research is seen as the ability of art to surprise us and the task of artistic research to take a new direction, avoid frequently asked questions and uncover matters not yet explored (see Seppä, Kaila & Slager 2017). 


Professor of art history Grant Kester (2004), who coined the term ‘dialogical art’, emphasizes that the art of dialogue arises from human interaction and reflection on ways in which to change the world. He also maintains that interaction and dialogue do not necessarily aim to produce speech but other forms of art and that discursive interaction is based on empathic identification. Empathy can create a space of shared knowledge in which listening is also important (Kester 2004). There is abundant research on the ethical dimensions of community art, including dialogical art, and discussions on how to involve community members in the planning process, how to treat participants equally and how to empower and create long-term relations and processes (see, e.g. Hiltunen 2009; Kantonen 2005; Kester 2004; Kwon 2002; Lippard 2010). Ethical issues concern the relationship between the artist and the work of art and the group or community involved in the production of the work as well as relations with other partners and the art world (Kantonen 2005). A professor in art education, Timo Jokela (Forthcoming) has noted that ethics in dialogical art in communities are often multi-layered and involve questions of ownership of culture and power.


In ISEAS 2019, we applied research ethics in addition to ethics of community art. Generally recognised ethical research principles include minimising harm, respecting autonomy, protecting privacy, offering reciprocity and treating people equitably (Hammersley & Traianou 2012). Patricia Leavy (2017), a pioneering author of arts-based research, writes about the ethical substructure of research. She explains that research on socially engaged art projects contains three ethical dimensions: the philosophical refers to the value system and addresses the question ‘What do you believe?’ The practical dimension of ethics focuses on ‘What do you do?’ and a reflective ethical dimension combines these two aspects and addresses the question ‘How does power come to bear?’ (Leavy 2017, p. 25). 


The artistic research in ISEAS focuses on the field of political ecology. According to art historian T. J. Demos, ‘…environmentally engaged art bears the potential to both rethink politics and politicize art’s relation to ecology, and its thoughtful consideration proves nature’s inextricable binds to economics, technology, culture, and law at every turn’ (Demos 2016, p. 8). The existing research on political ecology lies on a continuum ranging from politico-economic analyses to more ecology-oriented research and creative mixtures of the two (Sneddon 2000). It has been influential in transcending some of the intractable tensions within sustainability debates, including the key role of the capitalist economy and the long-term futility of ‘sustainability talk’ (Sneddon 2000). A telling shortcoming of the sustainability-oriented disciplines introduced in the 20th century has been their inability or refusal to grapple with the structural dimensions of human–environment relations (Sneddon 2000). Insights from political ecology have shown that the basic assumptions of sustainability thinking have engendered cautious optimism, indicating the need to expand academic interpretations and prescriptions beyond a narrowly construed pragmatic approach to sustainability (Sneddon 2000).


The anxiety caused by environmental crises has been recognised, and the phenomenon has been discussed in research (Pihkala 2017, 2018; Searle & Gow 2010). Empirical evidence has demonstrated a relationship between environmental concerns and symptoms that are indicative of depression, anxiety and stress (Searle & Gow 2010). Eco-anxiety is typically caused by the sudden deterioration of the local living environment, climate change and the threat of a sixth mass extinction of species. Women, children, young people, people with mental disorders and people with pro-environmental orientations are at particular risk of eco-anxiety (Searle & Gow 2010; Pihkala 2018). Eco-theologist Panu Pihkala (2017, 2018) has stated that while it is essential to express loss and threats, hope and action should be emphasised in education. The need to generate hope has also been discussed by art curators and researchers since the 1990s (see Lippard 1995). According to Pihkala (2017), the strength of art-based environmental education is the opportunity it provides for deep, if not existential and spiritual, experiences that are in touch with the body and mind, ideologies and emotions. Hope and the human potential to act respectfully towards the diversity of non-human nature were at the core of the practices at the symposium. The strategy for supporting hope and interactive relations towards non-human nature was agreed upon at the beginning of the symposium.


Huhmarniemi (2019) has argued that in conducting fieldwork for art–science collaborations, certain ethical concerns must be highlighted. She has outlined ethical principles based on a study of international art and science symposiums and similar gatherings in the Arctic. They include for example, a need for collaboration between artists and scientists in a variety of disciplines, including the natural and social sciences and humanities, in order to study the ways in which environmental problems are bound to society and culture. Huhmarniemi (2019) also notes that an art curatorial practice must be developed, as artists too often limit their process to artistic aims.  If the gathering is intended for international artists, they should collaborate with local artists and local knowledge holders, as place-specific art and science collaboration should also benefit locals (Huhmarniemi, 2019). Huhmarniemi also notes the need for art–science collaborations that focus on new solutions, science communication through contemporary art, increased dialogue and interaction in multidisciplinary and artistic environmental research, development in artist education in these fields and activist strategies that guide societies towards consuming fewer natural resources through art–science collaboration (Huhmarniemi 2019).

Ethical principles and theories applicable to dialogical art, artistic research, and art-science collaboration were discussed in ISEAS 2019. The concepts were clear to some participants; For example, participating researchers were well aware of the ethics of research, but some artists were less familiar with these principles. Posthumanism was a new concept for many members of the group and opened the question: "What can it mean for our practice?" Focusing on creating encounters in the community and in nature was a common goal and participants committed to the above approaches.

The freshwater pearl mussels project was an intervention that artist and art researcher Juhola designed for ISEAS. She wanted to create a permanent public art piece for locals in a prominent place – the village’s swimming beach – where nearly 100 years ago, local young men would dive into the river to catch mussels to give their betrothed a pearl to wear on her finger. The river environment has changed over the years, and river pearl mussels have become locally extinct. However, the intervention at Juhola’s request focused not only on freshwater pearl mussels but on all mussel species in Finland and their importance to biodiversity and aquatic ecology. The Mustionjoki River is the only remaining river in Finland where these species still exist (Lopes-Lima et al. 2017). 


Juhola found it important to commit a freshwater pearl mussel researcher to the symposium. Only a few researchers in Finland are familiar with the subject. While contacting them, Juhola found it challenging to find environmental scientists who were willing to participate in the symposium. One probable reason for the caution among natural scientists is that one- to two-week intensive symposiums are not a familiar way of working for them.


The intervention began under Juhola’s lead in the spring of 2019, when students learned from a group of researchers doing scuba diving on the lower reaches of the Mustio River, where they reduced the number of live freshwater pearl mussels. The research team was led by research diver Panu Oulasvirta from Alleco Ltd, who also introduced to the students the life cycle of the freshwater pearl mussels and the reasons leading to their extinction. However, Oulasvirta did not have time to attend the symposium in the late summer.


The freshwater pearl mussels team included Finnish artist and art researcher Katja Juhola, British artist Anthony White and Finnish researcher Jouni Taskinen from the field of aquatic ecology, who could only stay for three days. In this intervention, the artistic and scientific work was mainly conducted separately. Taskinen’s teaching focused on the aquatic ecology of the river environment, and the artists Juhola and White collaborated with local sixth-grade children through art. The experience was exciting for all parties involved, but as they set off to the local beach, the children, artists, the researcher and the class teacher relaxed. The intervention resulted in a fruitful, artistic and scientific interaction, deepened by Taskinen playing with clay with the children and demonstrating how mussels are moulded. With the help of Taskinen, the children, artists and teacher learned how mussels filter water, how many different species are found in the local river and what factors drove the endangerment of the freshwater pearl mussel. As the working process was divided into three parts, there was ample time for discussion.


Juhola’s discussion of the event with the teacher was a meaningful intervention. They conversed about the impact of the artistic intervention, reflecting on and evaluating its progress. The teacher stated that this project was one of the best she had witnessed throughout her long career as a teacher. The children were able to immerse themselves, i.e. the Swedish-speaking children spoke in Finnish and English; thus, various learning aims were achieved in the process. The children learned about science when Taskinen demonstrated an experiment of studying the filtration capability of mussels using water tanks, and they created science-related art with the artists. The teacher considered the process to be fruitful. At first, the children were sceptical, but they eventually expressed joy, enthusiasm, playfulness and motivation (photos 3–5 and video 2).


The close-knit, outdoor learning environment, including the bodily, tactile, and multi-sensory experiences, was beneficial for learning (see Graham 2007). The children were also allowed to swim, which made them group themselves tightly together, which was a noticeable change during the week. As a public artwork, the students created a sculpture out of clay with artist Juhola (photos 6–7). It represented the bottom of the river, where the mussels live. It was interesting to see how they placed the mussels in the proper position. A plaster mould and concrete were cast on the completed sculpture. The final piece was a concrete sculpture that will eventually be covered with moss, as it stands on the beach, and will be accompanied by an informative sign about the importance of river mussels in purifying river water (photos 8–9).

Under the guidance of English artist Anthony White, the children painted two different rivers on two large canvases (photos 10–11). One was blotchy and dirty with no mussels; the other was yellow, light and clean and contained mussels. As a way of depicting a polluted river, the children used the front of a dirty cloth to write about aspects of their lives that they did not like. To depict a healthy river they then used the front of a clean cloth to write about the positive aspects of their lives. The work was exhibited in the gallery alongside mussels that the children had made out of clay. On the final day, under the guidance of Juhola, the children wrote a memo about the project, which was also shown at the exhibition.


Professor of art education Timo Jokela (2008) performed an extensive study of community-based public art projects in schools and villages, which brought together teachers, pupils, parents and other community members. He explained that this kind of work can create a hub of information and action, a showcase for learning and community spirit, a meeting place for the school and community, a forum for symbols that encourage cultural identity and democracy and a meeting place for young citizens. The process of creating public art for one’s own environment empowers communities (Hiltunen 2010; Jokela 2008). The dean of the Utrecht Graduate School of Visual Art and Design, Henk Slager (2016), described the ability of art to comment on people’s living environments in a way that produces deeper meaning. He referred to the concept of critical spatial practice, signifying the coming together of art, architecture, planning and design to create a commitment to urban processes and the politicisation of space (Slager 2016). 


The Mustionjoki beach is a popular gathering place for villagers during the summer, so creating a permanent work of art with local school children was conducive to Slager’s perception of critical spatial practice. The work highlights the importance of keeping common spaces clean and how this can be variously affected. This project was also a process of empowerment that spread its message more broadly through the contribution of social media and the children’s families and exhibitions. 


In Taskinen’s final evaluation that he contributed in a written format based on a given evaluation criteria table, he alluded to the dialogical impact of ISEAS and said that he would use the same method in his courses in the future. Taskinen also mentioned that the project increased his interactions with artists. He found the intervention successful in terms of collaborating with the artists and school children involved. This project opened his eyes to the potential of collaboration between natural scientists and artists, e.g. in nature conservation (awareness and engagement of children). When asked how artwork influences ecological awareness, he stated that the site-specific artwork will have a major impact by increasing the awareness of children and local people. Art researchers Barone and Eisner (2012, p. 136) have noted that ‘The end result will then be a politically powerful work of arts-based research that stands on firm ethical grounds, an aesthetically powerful work of arts-based research with potential to change the world for the better’(photos 12–13).

Ethical standard in the aims of the symposium and following the principles of community art


According to Leavy (2017), ethical dimensions of research on socially engaged art includes ethical standards in the aims of researchers as well as transparency in their intentions and beliefs. This study was based on the notion that ecological crises call for artistic interventions and activist art and science collaborations to bring critical and creative thinking together to produce strategies that make it possible to live in a humbler way, to decolonise nature and to deepen human relations with non-human nature (see Demos 2016; Scott 2006). While activist art strategies are demanded for art, scientists have urged similar forms of eco-activism  (see e.g. Gardner & Wordley 2019). The purpose of ISEAS 2019 was to develop dialogical art, and the symposium served as a way to address the challenges of contemporary society. Thus, ISEAS 2019 had an ethical stance, but at the same time, the power of art was accepted as unpredictable.


There were many ethical aspects to agreement within communities: all community members needed to understand that they were committing to an artistic inquiry involving documentation. Articles would be written about ISEAS, and the work process was to be presented in art galleries and on social media and reported in a book. All these activities required written permission, informed consent, from the participants or from parents in the case of child participants. Schedules also had to be agreed to in advance so that the artistic intervention did not unduly interfere with normal day-to-day work. From an ethical standpoint, Slager’s (2016) critical spatial practice also had to be considered. It was important to inform all the villagers during the process and beforehand through newspapers and social media of what was happening in the public spaces and who was working there and why. 


When the artists and scholars arrived at the symposium, they entered a place-bound and relational situation that differed from their everyday life circumstances: everyone was free from their accustomed conventions and routines of life at home and common work environments with their families, relationships and duties. Special attention was paid to dialogue and being bodily and mentally present, which created an atmosphere of mutual respect. The participants arrived at the symposium without detailed preliminary plans, and they designed interventions through dialogue. It was soon realised that the success of the planned projects required the commitment and willingness of all the participants to make themselves available to their team members. There was a need to understand that the power of art is its alienation, as the value of disorder, repetition, quirkiness and disturbances in artistic interventions is central (see Bishop 2012). 


As artist Pablo Helguera (2011) stated, successful socially engaged art projects are linked to a local artist’s networks and a profound understanding of the participants arising from the artist’s long-term work. One crucial aspect of ISEAS is its long-term relationship with the community through the work of the curator Juhola; the artists and researchers only had a short-term engagement with the community as visitors. Juhola, as the curator and one of the artists, is a member of the community. The art historian and researcher Lucy Lippard (2010) maintained that the strongest community art, i.e. art with an ethical reasoning, is made in the artists’ own communities. Moreover, the curator and art history educator Miwon Kwon (2002) stated that artists benefit from locality at the beginning of these art projects. Juhola brought her knowledge and networks into the process. Additionally, some of the participating artists were also locals in the region or had lived there for several years. Furthermore, many researchers who worked in the communities underscored the importance of research interaction with community members. Trust among the community is based on common ethical values: thrust increases the sense of responsibility for common research goals (Gordon 2017). 


In this symposium, ethical choices were discussed by the artists and environmental experts on the first evening of the gathering (photo 2.). Juhola wrote up a memo based on this discussion and shared it with the team members. In addition to noting ethical methods of interaction with community members, the need for hope and support for the children’s agency was discussed. The participants agreed that in an eco-crisis, it is necessary to emphasise hope while collaborating with children (see Pihkala 2017, 2018; Värri 2018). In this first discussion on ethical aspects, it was noted that the participants had a right to use their own names: the authorship of the artists’ and researchers’ ideas would be respected and honoured. In the final discussion, it was agreed that the participants also had a right to remain anonymous in their reflections of the symposium.


Artists’ and experts’ respect for each other and non-human nature


Kantonen (2005) highlighted the conflicting expectations of participants in the ethical aspects of community art, arguing that even within groups, expectations can vary. In her view, a balance can be struck between intimacy and respectful distance. In ISEAS 2019, each artist, researcher and expert, including the members of the documentary team, gave presentations on the first evening of the symposium, thereby creating a foundation for mutual understanding. During the week, structured group discussions and reflections were conducted every evening. These discussions fostered mutual respect in the gathering.


In the evaluation discussion, which was based on an evaluation criteria table published by Huhmarniemi (2011), the team members were asked to reflect on whether they felt that their expertise had been valued, used and/or misused. This discussion was very interesting. The participants did not admit to recognising any misuse of their skills and expertise, even though art and research are commonly respected as self-worth and applied use is often questioned (see Erkkilä et al. 2016; Lampela 2012). In the freshwater mussels project, the team members had their responsibilities for the joint group, while in two other teams, there was more integration in the work of the artists, environmental researchers and experts (see Raatikainen, Juhola & Huhmarniemi, forthcoming).

Most of the artists and experts at the symposium found the gathering to be fruitful for their skills and future work. Many felt that the symposium also positively influenced their own relations with other people and non-human nature. As one of the participants described, she felt connected to other people and re-connected to nature and herself. The evidence from the symposium showed that this gathering had the ability to support participants’ skills in dialogical and environmentally engaged art as well as their agency to act towards sustainable society.

The ethical interaction with non-human nature was one of the features of this gathering. Environmental crises have challenged the humanistic perspective (Foster, Mäkelä & Martusewicz 2018; Jickling & Sterling 2017; Värri 2018) and have awakened the requirement to move beyond anthropocentrism and to have feelings of empathy and respect towards non-human nature. Post-humanism refers to ideologies in which anthropocentrism is to be avoided and in which the agency and rights of living and non-living nature are recognised. In the workshops, the agency of non-human nature was highlighted. For example, the project highlighted the observation of the ability of river mussels to clean water and the discussion of their role as a keystone species in aquatic ecosystems. The responsibility of humans towards non-human nature was also stressed. Thus, the tension between post-humanism and humanism featured in the workshops of the symposium. With the guidance of Taskinen, different species of river mussels were examined and studied before being returned, unharmed, to their natural environment. 


Ecological foot- and handprint of the symposium


ISEAS 2019 aimed for a low ecological footprint (which describes one’s negative impact on the planet) while multiplying the ecological handprint (which presents contributions towards a sustainable future). A low ecological footprint was targeted through vegetarian and mainly organic food, modest housing and environmentally friendly art materials. Transportation around the venue was mostly achieved by walking or cycling, and environmentally friendly natural and recycled materials were used to create the artworks.


While most of the conditions in the symposium promoted ecological sustainability and environmentalism, the long-distance travel required by some participants was discussed in regard to its harmful ecological footprint. Flights were taken from Germany and France, although some of the artists were originally from Asia and Chile: thus, the ISEAS gained an international and very heterogeneous group of artists with a relatively low ecological footprint. The emotional burden caused by the flights as well as many everyday elements of life were discussed several times at the symposium. While research has shown that, for example, many conservationists undertake environmentally harmful activities in their private lives, such as flying and eating mass-produced meat, and have no better knowledge of pro-environmental actions than reference groups (Andrew, Colea, Brendan & Fisher 2017), the symposium participants reflected on the environmental impact of the symposium and their lifestyles. While the methods of travel are part of the ethics of the gathering, it is important to consider the positive impact gained from the participants’ physical attendance and their capacity to act on behalf of the environment (in relation to the harmful environmental impact of long-distance travel). During the symposium, the significance of the participants’ willingness to come from abroad was interpreted as cultural richness and charm for community members. One of the principles of ISEAS is to share dialogical tools and methods with artists working in different countries (Juhola forthcoming). In ISEAS 2019, this sharing was aimed at multiplying the ecological handprint through the empowerment of the team members and the sharing of knowledge among them. Raatikainen, Juhola and Huhmarniemi (forthcoming) have discussed the case study as a way to enhance human–nature connectedness and environmental awareness as well as the capacities and capabilities for acting towards environmentalism.


Although artistic research in an art symposium is an open-ended process, each ISEAS results in an exhibition, a book and analyses of the process in research articles, with the aim of increasing the impact of the gathering through extensive visibility. Ethical principles must also be followed in these phases of the project. In 2019, the documentation and reflection of the process, including fragments of dialogues, were presented in two exhibitions after the completion of the workshops. The work of the documentary team was essential for the exhibitions, for gaining research data and for increasing transparency in the representation of the process. The members of the documentary team were well informed about the aims and strategies of the teams. They participated in pre-arranged evening discussions and reflection sessions and were aware of the purpose of the documentary as research data for Juhola’s art-based action research to develop art symposiums. Permission for documentation was obtained from the team and community members as well as the participating children’s parents. One final aspect of the impact of visibility was the use of social media. The original intent was to include a social media expert in the gathering to increase the transparency of the process for the community. Unfortunately, due to a cancellation, ISEAS did not have someone to commit to communication via social media only. However, social media was utilised in communicating the process and results of the symposium to locals, the art world and academics.


A crucial concern is whether collaborative projects can influence political decisions on one hand and transform the participants’ and audience’s values and worldviews on the other. In this project, we collected research data on school pupils’ experiences, and the participants wrote their reflections at the closing phase of the process. They concluded that more people should learn about mussels and the water in which they live. In addition, the project had felt like an experience, a fun break from school routines.  


-I think that the most fun was swimming a lot and having school on the beach. And it was fun to learn a lot. It has been fun to learn through artwork.


-Tuesday, I had become pleasantly interested in the colourless mussels and wanted to know more. We made art with clay that day. We made a mould of plaster and clay, then we expected them to dry so we could put cement in the mould to make a statue. It was messy and stuck everywhere. Happy day came. 


While it is impossible to evaluate the transformation of values from the scope of this article, it can be noted that experiential and multi-sensual learning are seen as a pivotal method for education for sustainability (Värri 2018).


Power relations in an art symposium – and why is it called a symposium


As artists and environmental researchers and experts were seen as equals in the symposium, we see it fitting to discuss the role of the curator and the mentor. Curator Juhola sought a heterogeneous group to attend this year’s symposium, which marked great diversity in terms of gender, age, cultural spectrum (including geographical), field, etc. The idea was to find a group that was culturally diverse and cross-generational and that could serve each other so that they would leave with the feeling that they had received more than they gave (see Juhola forthcoming). The analysis of the reflections of the team members shows that this happened and that the curatorial choices achieved this aim. 


The concept of ISEAS included the presence of a mentor who talked with each team several times. Mentor Mari Krappala has been involved in every symposium. During a short period of time when previously unknown factors worked towards a common goal (see also Krappala 2018), mentoring supported the processes of creation, clarifying details, seeking new directions and reverting activities to one’s own history, art direction or tradition. Krappala mentored the teams individually, in small groups and as a whole, and the research practice included various forms of dialogue. She worked in a similar way as in Moon’s (2013) description: her mentoring method consisted of asking challenging questions and supporting interactions within the teams. Some of the teams found the support of the mentor very helpful and constructive, although others reported that the mentor was less helpful for their process.


ISEAS is considered a symposium. The word ‘symposium’ is commonly used to refer to a conference or meeting aimed at discussing a particular subject in the academic world. It is also commonly used in the art world for art gatherings or art camps. It is reasonable to ponder whether ‘symposium’ is the correct name for this socially and environmentally engaged transdisciplinary gathering. In universities, similar interdisciplinary gatherings are called international summer/winter schools or intensives. Also, in the international art biennial ‘Documenta’, such gatherings are called intensives. However, ISEAS is not a primarily academic event, neither is it targeted for students. This also led to a more equal power position than, for example, teachers would have with students and directors with actors in other gatherings, such as intensives and summer schools.


Huhmarniemi (2019) used the concept of fieldwork in reference to site-specific art and science collaboration. This concept is also used by the Finnish Bioart Association in relation to international art and science gatherings focusing on bioart practices outdoors (Beloff, Berger & Haapoja 2013). As a concept, fieldwork does not emphasise collaboration and dialogue: fieldwork can also be done on its own. In ancient Greece, the symposium was a gathering after the meal, and it included drinking, music, dancing, presentations and conversations. ISEAS 2019 included all of these activities: spending evenings together was an essential element of the symposium. Here, alcohol consumption, or lack thereof, was not considered problematic; it was a part of the get-togethers in the evenings for some of the participants. While presentations were part of the official programme, dancing took place around a campfire, in keeping with the premise of ISEAS as a dialogical artwork, as suggested by Juhola (2018). 


The strength of the concept of symposium as the title of the event lies in its recognisability: local community members and many funders and artists are more familiar with the concept of an art symposium than that of an intensive or artistic fieldwork. Local recognisability is an important factor, since the participation of community members is key to the success of the event.


Finally, the ethics of the research report must be noted. While analysing the research and reflecting on the process, we committed to discussing the challenges and successes of the process. We respect the participants’ right to remain anonymous or act under their own name, depending on the content of the data. We also demonstrated our values and attitudes in an open manner by explaining our relationship with the research topic and the intentions of the research (see Jokela & Huhmarniemi 2018). The other artists and environmental experts were also given the opportunity to read and comment on the manuscript.

Elements of ethics in the symposium

Video 1. Whole ISEAS including three interventions. Video is 26 min 18 sec. Videographed and edited by Amir Abdi and Linus Westerlund.

Photo 2. Artists, researchers and environmental experts are having presentations and discussions. Photograph Fabio Cito.

Photo 1. Participants of ISEAS are having a meeting in Solhem residency kitchen. Photograph Fabio Cito.

Photo 6: The pupils created a sculpture out of clay with artist Juhola. It represented the bottom of the river, where the mussels live. They placed the mussels in the proper position. The final piece is a concrete sculpture. Photograph by Fabio Cito.

Video 2. Video 5 min. 42 sec. about Freshwater pearl mussel -team to working with local 6:th grade school children. Video by Amir Abdi & Linus Westerlund.

Summary and conclusion

Artists, researchers and environmental experts were invited to work with locals in a socially engaged art symposium. Three interdisciplinary teams focused on locally current topics: endangered meadows and wood-pastures, freshwater pearl mussels and the circular economy. 

In this symposium, the participants collaborated on an issue of common interest to contribute to environmentalism and good practices in dialogical art. The implemented strategies supported successful, sensitive and deep dialogues during the symposium, including living tightly together and sharing days with community members, with evenings that included discussions around the dinner table and campfire. The pre-set goals were achieved. The aims were 1) to bring environmental research into the communities’ worldviews in an experiential way, 2) to cope with the local natural conditions, promote hope and agency and connect with the community and cultural landscape and 3) to study, along with community members, how to live in an equal relationship with non-human nature. 

The purpose of this article was to analyse the research practices and ethics of the gathering. We conclude that many ethical choices must be made in the preliminary planning phase of the gathering, and when defining the themes and aims for an event. Additionally promoting cultural diversity and equality in curatorial practices, producing the event in a dialogical process and considering an environmental footprint of the forthcoming symposium must also be considered. During the gathering, ethical principles need to be considered in relation to the artists’ and researchers’ physical and mental presence and respect for each other and in interactions with the participating and surrounding community according to the ethics of community art and artistic research.  Human interactions with non-human nature must focus on hope, positive agency and foster of capacities toward environmentalism. Special attention must be paid to ethical working practices in regard to children if project’s topics have a potential to cause adverse emotional and psychological impacts, such as eco-anxiety. Additionally, an ethical manner of photo and video documentation, data collection and represenation is an important element of ethics in an art symposium.


We also conclude that further research is needed on socially-engaged art-science collaborations that have educational aims, as well as aims to contribute to ecological handprint and capacities of artists and researchers as educators for sustainability. The importance of dialogue art in the Symposium on Socially Engaged Art should be further explored and the elements used to enhance the art of discussion. In addition, power relations in art events such art symposiums could also be researched. The role of the curator as a facilitator of community collaboration should also be studied more.



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Photo 3. Professor Jouni Taskinen is showing how the mussels are cleaning the water. Photograph Fabio Cito.

Photo 7. The children learned about science when Taskinen taught them about an experimental way of studying mussels, and they created science-related art with the artists Juhola & White.  Photograph by Fabio Cito.

Photo 5. Children are searching mussels with the guidance of Professor Taskinen. Photograph Fabio Cito.

Photos 8-9, Katja Juhola contributed to the final statue. Photographs by Jukka Juhola.

Photos 10-11, Pupils making the artworks with artist White. Photographs by Fabio Cito.

Photo 12, Exhibition view in Galleri Perspektive September 2019. Photograph by Fabio Cito.

Photo 13, Exhibition view from the opening day. Photograph by Fabio Cito.

Photo 4. After two hours with the help of the mussels the water is clean. Photograph Fabio Cito.